I spent today in a training inservice. One of those training sessions which last all day, in a stuffy room too small to hold ten loud and vibrant colleagues, where participation is “encouraged” and the number of minutes spent in silence, or even quiet, can be easily counted on one hand.
It’s excruciating for an introvert. It’s excruciating for someone who needs quiet and space to process information, who struggles with over-stimulation when there’s too much going on. It becomes overwhelming and I have to shut down. I have to shut myself off from the bustle and the conflicting demands on my attention, all of which are loud, all of which are colourful, all of which are in my face.
Get me on my own, or with trusted friends, I can talk and contribute mutually to a conversation. Get me in that situation talking about something on which I’m passionate, I can be positively garrulous, and excessively nerdy. But in a large, loud group, I had to sit quietly – about which one of my happily extrovert colleagues (a senior colleague, at that) stated that she felt annoyed. My choice to remain quiet was, according to her, denying my colleagues any experience or wisdom I might be able to share. It was not quite stated, but the implication was that I was being selfish.
I put my own defensiveness aside, took the feedback on board, and made an effort to contribute – when I felt I had something useful to say. But it did make me feel a little attacked, and I did feel a little bit irritated. Because it was hard not to take it as a critique of not only my actions, but of my needs, of my personality, as an introvert. Something I can’t help. Something which research has suggested is at least in part innate. An introvert can be forced to act as an extrovert – but in me, it goes against the grain.
And it made me realise that there’s a bias against introverts. The cafe owner who tells me she wouldn’t employ anyone who identified as an introvert, because extroverts are friendlier towards customers. The acquaintance who tells me that I’m not friendly because I’m not loud and bubbly. The manager who chides me for not taking part in the conversation because I’m listening until I have something worth contributing – or until I can get a word in edgeways in a room full of extroverts. The friend who worries that I’m not having a good time because I sit on the outskirts of the group, quietly enjoying the conversation, rather than being in the middle. The senior colleague who sees quietness as selfishness, reservation as a chosen refusal to contribute.
This is the problem, though. I am who I am. And the more I learn about introverts, the more I realise that I am one. That I can’t change that. Even if I wanted to. I can push myself to contribute, to share what I think is worth sharing. I can take on board the feedback I’m given – I really don’t want to be seen as unfriendly, or selfish, or stand-offish – and modify my behaviour to make others feel more comfortable. I can do the things I need to do to cope with the demands and over-stimulation of a loud and intense inservice, or even the day-to-day drain of having conversations for a living. But I can’t change who I am.
And, increasingly, I’m deciding that I don’t want to. Increasingly, I’m learning to be proud of who I am. Introvert, nerd – turns out, it’s not a bad thing to be me. Even in a world full of loud extroverts who don’t quite understand.